On Tuesday afternoon, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden announced that SpaceX and Boeing would be testing a manned spacecraft by the end of the year, a vehicle capable of delivering humans to the International Space Station or any other point within low-earth orbit. SpaceX’s Dragon 2, or Boeing’s CST-100, would be the first American-developed manned space vehicle since the space shuttle, which had its first test-flight in 1977 and was retired in 2011.
This apparently twice-a-century event of a new American spacecraft has an important political context to it. Since the shuttle fleet’s retirement, American astronauts have had to depend on Russian Soyuz capsules launched from Kazakhstan’s Baikanour Cosmodrome in order to reach the International Space Station.
There have been two such Russian launches of American astronauts since the Ukraine crisis escalated in February 2014, most recently in May. Since then, both Congress and SpaceX have made issue of NASA and the Air Force’s dependence on Russian rocket components, trade that has been threatened by recent US and EU sanctions against Moscow. SpaceX even won an injunction against the Air Force’s use of Russian rocket components in May.
If this year’s crisis in US-Russian relations has frozen trade in hardware, manned flights have gone on as normal. But these are low-hanging diplomatic fruit: Russian and US spacecraft rendezvoused in orbit in 1975, during the Cold War. US repairs helped keep the Russian Soviet-era space station Mir afloat towards the end of its operational life in the late-1990s. Manned space cooperation was never politically sensitive enough to become a victim of US-Russian power politics. If anything, shared missions allowed both to maintain a veneer of partnership amidst a larger context of mutual suspicion and hostility.
Not anymore. In today’s press conference, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden reminded viewers of the Obama administration’s longstanding commitment to “ending the U.S.’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017.” He emphasised that NASA wasn’t wasting much time in building new facilities, creating a timetable for test-flights, and certifying SpaceX and Boeing’s hardware for manned space missions.
The US is dispensing with the diplomatic niceties of the Soyuz flights. Manned space travel is a matter of national prestige again. And if Russian president Vladimir Putin really is girding himself for a long-term struggle over the future of the European periphery — one that brings him into constant indirect conflict with the US and the NATO states — then at least US policymakers will have one less reason to want to mollify him when a manned Dragon 2 capsule flies for the first time this December.
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